During the 1976 presidential campaign, out in the streets of the Midwestern suburb where I grew up, kids would say (no doubt parroting the political views of their parents) that President Ford “may not be great, but at least he’s honest.” Even back then, that sense of Ford’s integrity seems to have been fairly widespread, even though it coexisted with suspicions about his pardon of Richard Nixon. Greeted at the time with howls of outrage, the Nixon pardon is now widely regarded as an act of integrity and political courage on Ford’s part. In the intervening years, and now in the obituaries marking his death at 93, Ford’s integrity has been lauded as a defining trait.
At the same time, Ford was also a creature of Capitol Hill who knew how to play ball from many years serving in the House of Representatives. “His background is non-doctrinaire conservative,” William F. Buckley wrote of Ford not long after he assumed the presidency, “but his most conspicuous overtures have been doctrinaire liberal.” Therein lay Ford’s reputation for bipartisanship (and if the background and the overtures were reversed, it would be called something else).
Ford was a Midwestern conservative in many respects, opposing the liberal spending policies of President Lyndon Johnson and supporting the Vietnam War. But he maintained touches of Eastern liberalism on social issues, had a typical politician’s misunderstanding of economics, and generally adhered to the detente policies that were put in place by Nixon and pursued through Jimmy Carter’s tenure.
Ford was certainly nobody’s idea man. In another country’s political culture, he might have been seen as a party apparatchik, exactly the kind that tends to be standing in the wings when a higher-up is ousted and a steady hand of continuity is needed.
Steadiness: that’s another word you hear often about Ford. Having assumed the presidency under terrible circumstances and with a significant portion of the country wondering if he was up to the job, Ford proved his competence, and his modest demeanor must have had a calming effect. Indeed, to a young kid, it seemed that the mysterious Nixon had been succeeded by somebody’s grandfather. In a nation that prizes vigor and identifiable achievements among its chief executives, steadiness is an odd thing to be remembered for, but then Ford came along at a very odd time.
In his remarks on Ford’s passing, President Bush evoked that steadiness among other traits: “He was a true gentleman who reflected the best in America’s character….For a nation that needed healing, and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most.”
Bush also called Ford “a great man who devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States.”
Steadiness and greatness are not usually thought of together, and thinking of Gerald Ford as a great man is more than a bit of a stretch. President Bush’s well-meaning praise seems driven by personal sentiment as well as a recent tendency to laud the service of our public officials, especially our chief executives, regardless of the significance of their contributions. This tendency is symbolized by President’s Day, the replacement for what were once holidays for Washington and Lincoln.
It is likely that President Bush would use the word “great” to describe at least one other former president — his own father, with whom Gerald Ford shared several traits. Both Ford and George H.W. Bush exemplified a commitment to service and a gentlemanliness that is pretty much gone from our politics.
Ford was a more inside the Beltway version of the first President Bush, though perhaps without the same degree of political dexterity and certainly without the vast international rolodex. Bush the Elder did not have the extensive Washington legislative experience of Ford, but he did have his famously broad resume. Had he had been born a little earlier and attained the requisite seniority, it could have been he, not Ford, assuming the vice presidency in 1973 and then succeeding Nixon in 1974.
Both Bush and Ford were loyal Republican Party soldiers when the core of the party was not yet Reaganite. Both conducted what were in essence managerial presidencies. It was Bush the Elder’s good fortune that the process he was called upon to manage was a momentous, and much happier, historical development than what fell upon Ford. Bush the Elder managed the Cold War’s end skillfully, just as Ford managed to convince a nation that a presidential resignation was not the end of the Republic. These were worthy, but custodial, achievements by men who lacked vision but had the ability and character to make a contribution.
Sometimes a nation needs a break from greatness (both good and bad greatness) to catch its breath. A greater man preceded Gerald Ford, and a greater man than most other American presidents preceded George H.W. Bush.
Now the ex-presidents club has dwindled to three. How odd it will be if two years from now it is a foursome, with a father and son as bookends to a man who seems to haunt them both in different ways. But that is another story.
Paul Beston is a writer in New York.
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